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Preparing for the Quiet before the Quiet: Interview with Claire Donato,
Part 1

Dan Magers

Claire Donato’s book of fiction Kind Mirrors, Ugly Ghosts (Archway Editions, 2023) defies easy categorization. Think lyric fiction (or fictive lyric) in the book’s poetic recursions of imagery, situations, and motifs that come and go in an associative (or dissociative) pinwheel surrounding a speaker sometimes named Claire. Or think fictions as meditations, fictions as cultural criticism centered around various iterations and degrees of human (and non-human) intimacy that fill a life.

If you paid attention to small press literature over the last 15 years, especially in New York, you may be familiar with Donato’s name and work. I learned about her in 2009 with the publication of her chapbook Someone Else’s Body published by the late Matt Henriksen and Katy Henriksen’s handmade press Cannibal Books. Donato has since published Burial (Tarpaulin Sky, 2013) and The Second Body (Poor Claudia, 2015).

Claire Donato reading in Baltimore.

A child of two PhDs (her father is a linguist, and her mother is French literature scholar), Donato’s mother is French, who had been Donato says, “sent to America basically to combat a depression she was facing as a young 20-something-year-old woman who wasn't taking to secretarial school.” Donato enrolled in Brown’s prestigious MFA writing program shortly after graduating college. Her interdisciplinary interests flourished, surrounded by the likes of C.D. Wright (her thesis advisor), Forrest Gander, Renee Gladman, Keith and Rosemarie Waldrop, Brian Evenson, Thalia Field, Joanna Howard, and John Cayley. She is currently Acting Chairperson of Writing at Pratt Institute.

We talked via Zoom in November 2023. Our conversation appears in two parts. This first installment discusses the origin and influences of Kind Mirrors, Ugly Ghosts, its formal composition, its uneasy relation to autofiction, Donato’s interest in writing about food, pandemic writing, teaching, and her experience working with Archway Editions on the book and the book’s release.

The soon-to-be published second part focuses on Donato’s deep engagement with psychoanalysis and psychoanalysis’s influence on Kind Mirrors, Ugly Ghosts.

Many of the stories are focalized or narrated around a character named Claire, the same name as the author of Kind Mirrors, Ugly Ghosts. Do you consider this book autofiction?

When I think of autofiction, I think of the strand of French writing incidentally coined by Serge Doubrovsky in the 1970s. Doubrovsky came up with this term in notebooks he kept adjacent to undergoing psychoanalysis. It was not developed as a saleable moniker but rather as a term to designate his novel-in-progress, and was meant to be a third category to complicate the existing categories of autobiographical fiction and autobiography.  Now autofiction is marketable in American publishing—think of Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, Teju Cole. Still, I’ve always associated it predominantly with French writers like Chloé Delaume, Annie Ernaux, Sophie Calle, even Marguerite Duras. So to me, autofiction feels very specific in its Frenchness. My understanding too is that there are specific rules associated with this term: for example, a character named after the author who can also be tracked to the book’s “I” via context clues; and also that the story told in the book actually happened to the author.

I happen to be French. And after most of my readings, someone will inevitably come up and be like: Your work must be nonfiction, right? Or: This story must have actually happened to you! A friend who was reading the book kept texting me the same question after reading my stories: “Did this really happen?” Sometimes these questions can feel invasive. Maybe I’m asking to be invaded. Sometimes these questions seem like the result of what Claire Dederer characterizes in her book Monsters as a product of the autobiographical moment in which we live, wherein everyone is obsessed with reading everything through the lens of autobiography. I’m a frequent watcher of reality television, so I’m certainly sympathetic. If I'm caught off-guard or tired from reading, I’ll sometimes call Kind Mirrors, Ugly Ghosts autofiction, or concede to these questions. Sometimes I’ll evade the questions: “No, but I’m happy to hear you think these stories are nonfiction.” The stories I tell are certainly not nonfiction or memoir, but some of them have happened to me. I shudder to think the book is a memoir.

The Claire character within Kind Mirrors, Ugly Ghosts is inconsistent, contradictory, and shape-shifting; she is also ongoing and the same. This seems to be how people are. I enjoy taking my name and transforming Claire into an avatar whom I whip a little bit. Maybe this is a result of my own masochism: the page becomes a site for the sort of self-destruction I wish I could embody in the world. It’s a place where I can explore the boundaries of Claire’s shame and pain without physically endangering myself.

[The opening story] “Colour Green” is a great entry-point for the book. A very recursive story about “Claire,” who messages an online guy for companionship and imagines writing versions of a story about a person named No or Nöelle who falls in love with a plant (using multiple definitions for what “plant” means). The narration pulls in multiple cultural references, especially Sibylle Baier’s record Colour Green and also references psychoanalysis, sadomasochism, textual sex, and yearning for connection while wanting to be alone. How does autofiction or anything we’ve talked about figure in this story?

Oh god—I don't know. You mean, besides the Claire avatar?

One of the things I always think about as being characteristic of autofiction is creating this relationship between the author and a character with the same name and other similarities and producing iterations of that relationship or dynamic on the page. There’s at least four of them in the story: the story of the Claire avatar, who is undergoing psychoanalysis. This character Claire writes (or thinks about writing) three separate versions of a story about a character based on herself falling in love with a plant. These different “selves” are interwoven and modulated throughout to create an atmosphere where you can no longer tell what’s real and who the “real” Claire is. I thought this created a very powerful and sophisticated effect, autofiction or not.
I think that's much better than I could personally put it. I mean, I'm thinking about different ways of writing, too. Claire is writing a story when she's chatting with the guy online, right?

Yeah! Producing a separate material self through online correspondence with a stranger for intimacy and sexual gratification.

“Colour Green” opens with a disembodied exchange between Claire and the plant, or Claire and the analyst, or Claire and someone else entirely—the reader? There may even be a third voice in the story’s opening:

This introduction sets a frame for “Colour Green.” It may be a piece of writing happening in a consulting room, for instance. It may be Claire talking to Claire.

For me, this opening is interesting to revisit. It makes “Colour Green” feel like a set of Russian nesting dolls. That's autofiction, right? The most miniature Claire doll is the site of control for the biggest Claire doll. The miniature Claire doll is the way the biggest Claire doll can have control over her own life, which is to write about the miniature Claire doll.

When did you start writing the works for Kind Mirrors, Ugly Ghosts?

My answer to this question consistently changes. The book began as two different projects, maybe even three (insofar as I was imagining that a few of these pieces (“The Runaway Bunny” and “Cut Flowers”) might exist in a poetry book). In around 2015 or 2016, I started writing the novella that ends the book, “Gravity and Grace, the Chicken and the Egg, or: How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.”

In 2017, I began working on the stories. I was adjuncting a lot and remember that I would come home late at night and draft what constitutes some of the stories.

I met my boyfriend Nik Slackman while working on The One on Earth: Selected Works of Mark Baumer, a posthumous anthology for which I contributed an introduction. We became friends and collaborators. I showed him much of the unedited work I had on my computer, which were these short stories and the novella. He had the idea of combining them so that this diptych emerged. And coincidentally—or maybe not coincidentally—Mark Baumer's posthumous collection is also a series of short stories that ends with a novella.
Do you consider Kind Mirrors, Ugly Ghosts a diptych? The short stories in the first half and the novella the second half?

I do think of it as a diptych. My literary agent and dear friend Adrian Shirk also thinks about the novella as a coda, which she likens to the final movement in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.

KMUG at Powerhouse Arena in DUMBO, Brooklyn
Image by Claire Donato

The novella uses a lot of the moves and thematic content of the shorter works but has more room to breathe, it allows you to explore more formally. More expansive, but it contains all of what’s come before.
I revised the setting in the novella very late in my process. The COVID-19 pandemic became the site of the novella, which spatially opened it up. The novella was always a series of vignettes, which really became framed by negative space with the new setting. This is how the pandemic felt for many of us. Suddenly all of this space opened up—or closed in—around our bodies.

I’m surprised to hear that the draft was created before the pandemic. It really captures the feeling of that horrible time, being inside all the time and just brooding, just figuring out ways to keep routines. In the novella, the answer is using food preparation as a meditative or mindful practice. That gives a structure, not only to the life of the speaker, but also to the work itself.

You write about food so beautifully and in such detail and such elegance. It’s clearly something that you’ve thought a lot about. How did that influence the writing and come to be a topic?

At around age 27 or 28, I realized I just couldn't cook. My food kept getting burnt. One shouldn’t be short-tempered with vegetables, but there was anger keeping me from cooking food that I wanted to actually eat. “There are many ways to love a vegetable. The most sensible way to love it is well-treated,” M.F.K. Fischer wrote in How to Cook a Wolf. This is one of the epigraphs to “Gravity and Grace, the Chicken and the Egg, or: How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.”

I decided to commit to a cooking practice and to try to make my commitment intertwined with something akin to a Buddhist loving-kindness practice, wherein I would hold a friend in mind as I was cooking in order for my food to be made with love and not rage, or whatever other negative affects I was cooking from.

I remember putting out calls online, probably on Twitter and Facebook, asking if anybody wanted a virtual meal prepared for them. People took me up on this offer. I would cook with them in mind, then take a photograph of the meal and send it to them. Subsequently, I started to write prose vignettes around those meals I was cooking, which were ekphrastic in nature, finely detailed descriptions of the food.

Concurrently, I became interested in the almost religious practice people have of photographing their meals. In Psychopolitics, Byung-Chul Han writes about the phone as akin to a rosary. Holding this digital object like a rosary and praying atop food: this is a practice that deeply offends some people. In other cultures, it's a part of daily life, and there exist entire digital applications devoted to photographing one’s food and sharing it with friends. I was photographing and writing around an actual cooking practice while adjacently making video art using some of my ingredients, which are still online.

From the time we’ve known each other, I’ve always been very interested in your teaching practice. Just from Instagram, I’d get really interested in the things you talked about teaching, like “oceanic feeling” or twins or miniatures. I wish I were in these classes!

Interestingly, teaching doesn’t come up as a topic all that much in Kind Mirrors, Ugly Ghosts. For example, it comes out as the speaker’s job in the novella, but little is said about it as the pandemic grinds on. And yet, in real life you received the 2020-2021 Distinguished Teacher Award at Pratt Institute—that very time when teaching was at its most impossible.

I began teaching at Brown while enrolled in the MFA Literary Arts program, so I started to teach very young, as a 22-year-old. Both of my parents are teachers, and I grew up in their classrooms. After moving to New York, I taught at a handful of schools in the city: The School of Visual Arts, Fordham, the Cooper Union, and at Parsons. In 2014, I began adjuncting at Pratt Institute, which felt more like a home base and a place where I could very freely design classes. I don't know that I trained to teach exactly, but it felt like the pieces were clicking into place in my life.

In the Writing Department at Pratt, I've been able to design poetics electives, which I often call poetics laboratories. Our students take a number of them during their time in the fine arts program, the BFA program in writing. The classes inform my own writing but also the students’ writing, which creates this really beautiful feedback loop between us.

The Oceanic Feeling is one of these classes which braids multidisciplinary ideas around the oceanic feeling from Freud via Roland with texts that grapple with ecopsychoanalysis and climate anxiety. As well, we read fiction and poetry, and look at performance work that navigates the actual ocean. Some examples include Virginia Woolf's The Waves, Asiya Wadud’s Syncope, Ellie Ga’s Strophe, a Turning, and Bas Jan Ader’s final performance, which left him lost at sea. 

In late 2019, I was nominated for the 2020-2021 Distinguished Teacher Award you mention. I had been previously nominated in 2017. I was actually supposed to be formally observed in person the day school shut down. I remember we were about to discuss St. Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle in connection with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and students were going to show their Great Garbage Patch of the Soul assignments.

I'm grateful I won the Distinguished Teacher Award in 2020 because I was able to give a speech for the virtual graduation, to impart a reflection on that moment in time. It was difficult to write the right sort of speech amidst the pandemic, or to approximate what words might serve as a balm. I think what I wrote was possibly grave and anxious because of the nature of that moment in time. I incorporated a clip of my students singing Cat Power’s cover of “Sea of Love”—we had been singing together as a warm-up in The Oceanic Feeling. Still, I think the speech stuck with a lot of my students and former students. A few have referenced it (see Katie Vogel’s chapbook The Awakening) and remember it as an anchor during a completely unmooring moment in their lives. Receiving that teaching award was really one of the greatest honors of my life. I love to teach and for that to be reflected back to me in the form of that honor is deeply important to me.

I'm not teaching right now because I'm administering as Acting Chairperson of Writing at Pratt Institute. I administered as Assistant Chairperson of Writing last year and taught alongside it. But as Chairperson right now, I can't teach. And I miss it so much. I feel profusely sad much of the time, which I think is due to a lack of being in the classroom for the first time in a dozen years. I'm excited to get back to it. It is really energizing.

This book is published by Archway Editions. How did you come to work with them?

While I was shopping Kind Mirrors, Ugly Ghosts with my literary agent Adrian Shirk, I received an email from Chris Molnar. He was interested in a project he had read about on my website that’s a formal study of Harmony Korine’s 1997 film Gummo. My Gummo–my formal study of Gummo—is a work-in-progress, so I wasn’t able to share it with Chris at that time, but did have Kind Mirrors, Ugly Ghosts. Adrian sent it to Chris, and Naomi Falk fell in love with it and decided to take it on as a project.

That Archway took the risk on my book is huge, and that they didn't try to flatten it into something conventionally saleable is deeply meaningful to me. Naomi honored the peculiarities of the text and let it retain those peculiarities across our revisions, and perhaps even let it become more peculiar than the draft that she initially accepted. Working with her was really an honor. She's whip smart and can talk about classical music and video games and raves and independent art house cinema and French literature and capybara memes and art history and art book publishing—she worked in publishing at MoMA for many years. Her reference points are kaleidoscopic, which I think makes her a good editor for a kaleidoscopic project.

Customized Kind Mirrors, Ugly Ghosts incense by PONSONT at the book's launch on November 16, 2023
Image by Claire Donato

Archway Editions is thrilling because it's a new press. They're down to try out a lot of different things in terms of publicity—we held a preview gala for my book in October at Tavern on the Green, and my official launch featured custom incense by Ponsont, music by Zach Phillips from Fievel is Glauque, and a conversation with the artist Molly Soda. I also had the opportunity to interview Paul Schrader at Metrograph for one of Archway’s screening of First Reformed, which they published in screenplay form. And they're taking on titles that feel actually independent and alternative in perspective and literary approach. They’re publishing Ishmael Reed’s recent plays, and Blake Butler's Molly came out adjacent to my book, too. Blake is a really old friend of mine; we met almost 15 years ago and once went on a book tour together. It’s been a pleasant surprise to have somebody with whom I can do book release events with who's also an old friend.

How is it being the focus of attention in the wake of the book release?

My friend Joshua Knobe once joked that the release of a book is like preparing for the quiet before the quiet. This is true on the one hand—and has been very true for previous projects of mine. On the other, I’ve been extremely busy and tired, and my book has done better than I expected. I feel like it's finding its audience, you included, and the first print run is nearly sold out. As part of its release, I've gotten to do many events. I did five readings in a week which ended last weekend: I went to Baltimore and Providence, read at a few places here. I also did Chelsea Hodson's Morning Writing Club at the end of November, and read for Lost in the Letters in Atlanta. In early January, I’m curating films related to the book for The Roxy Cinema: Bojour Tristesse and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.

I've missed doing art-related travel. When I was younger, I used to do multi-legged book tours, which the COVID-19 pandemic paused. I love performing in front of different audiences and seeing how the same piece is received depending upon day, location, and atmosphere. For example, I read “David”—a short story from the book—at four of those five readings, and each time it was completely different. Some audiences didn't laugh; some audiences were in stitches. One audience was much older; one was comprised almost solely of MFA students. I love exploring these dimensions of crowds. It helps me feel like I’m learning more about my work. And I so appreciate having other people read and consider it.

Dan Magers’s first book of poems, Partyknife, (Birds, LLC) is described by Thurston Moore “as if poet-ghost adrift thru dressing rooms backstage taking notes…Writing poems like these is just as good as starting a band.” His writing has been published in Notre Dame Review, Hyperallergic, Vice, Fanzine, the Pen America blog, Barrelhouse, and others. He lives in Chicago.

Claire Donato’s writing collates forms and materials. She is the author of three books, most recently Kind Mirrors, Ugly Ghosts (Archway Editions, 2023). Her previous two book, Burial (Tarpaulin Sky Press) and The Second Body (Poor Claudia), are out of print. Recent work has been published or is forthcoming in Parapraxis, Forever, The Chicago Review, The End, Oversound, The Brooklyn Rail, Fence, and GoldFlakePaint. Currently, she works as Acting Chairperson of Writing at Pratt Institute, where she received the 2020-21 Distinguished Teacher Award. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Woebegone.